BWW Interviews: Andre De Shields
The production of DAMN YANKEES playing at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport (LI), New York is a solid one. There are fine performances, inventive staging, colorful costumes and a jaunty score. However something very magical takes place half way through the second act: it is at this point that Broadway veteran André De Shields, who plays Mr. Applegate, sits in a chair, crosses his legs and launches into the song "Those Were The Good Old Days". It is the moment when the show is elevated into something extremely grand and memorable.
This number has been staged differently in various productions of DAMN YANKEES and the version that played at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre many years ago stands out because Eddie Bracken played Applegate and was backed by a bevy of long-limbed chorines who not only filled the vast stage but detracted from Mr. Bracken's performance. Was the number about beautiful legs or Applegate?
Such is not the case in Northport. De Shields is alone on the stage and as the number progresses, the various set pieces are whisked into the wings until all that remains are De Shields, a glittered top hat, and a cane. He sells the number with such élan and grace that the audience is mesmerized, eating out of his proverbial palms. It's pure unadulterated show business and it works extraordinarily well in a time when chandeliers have to crash onto stages and monkeys have to fly overhead to get a crowd's attention. De Shields proves that his over 30 years in show business have taught him a few things and he uses all of them well in this role. It's an absolutely masterful performance.
Speaking by telephone from Manhattan, the Baltimore-born De Shields is the model of graciousness. In fact, he's a true gentleman. The veteran of numerous Broadway triumphs is articulate, thoughtful and brimming over with excitement for the production he's starring in. It's a role that he's wanted to do ever since he saw the Broadway revival starring Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth in 1994. "It was at that moment that I put the role on my list of things to do," De Shields recollects. "I'm invested in the Spirit," he continues, "So I plant these seeds in the Universe and just simply bide my time until they are fertilized and they grow. In this case the seeds were planted in 1994 but my chance didn't come around until 2010. I think, though, that it's perfectly timed."
"Everything isn't always peaches and cream in this business," continues De Shields. "There are times when the daily rejections and those daily doses of insecurity get me down. So every once in a while I look at my own resume and say ‘Oh wow! I've been so richly blessed...If you were to drop dead today I have left an artistic footprint.' I am speaking of THE WIZ, AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', PLAY ON! and THE FULL MONTY, the opportunities I've had to inhabit roles that heretofore were the domain of white actors and the benefit my body of work will serve for other actors." There is a genuine sense of accomplishment in the performer's voice as he says this.
THE WIZ was a ground-breaking show in many ways, but the one element of it that stands out even today was its marketing. It was the first time that a Broadway show used mainstream television to advertise the production. Everyday people who had never ventured into a legitimate theatre before wanted to see the show because the television ads boasted, "THE WIZ is a Wow!" "We can thank Marilyn Stasio for that quote," De Shields chuckles. "It opened up the door for future advertising campaigns. It was the first time, on a large-scale basis, that the potential audience for Broadway was reached in the privacy of their homes. The live action commercial came to them while they were sitting on their couches, eating their chips, and the message was, ‘You don't want to miss this, do you?' And part of that had to do with how unkindly the show had been treated by the critics. It would have been unfortunate if this show did not meet its intended audience. The innovative TV spots allowed not only regular theatre-goers to see it, but also those audiences who are underrepresented on Broadway-the African American audiences--who had traditionally felt that Broadway was an inhospitable terrain. They didn't see themselves-up to 1975-represented on the American stages. Theatre's basic tenet is to reflect the society it professes to entertain. THE WIZ set that precedent both on an entertainment level and an historical level."
By his own admission, André De Shields has made a career out of show-stopping solo performances within the larger frame of Broadway musicals. "THE FULL MONTY was an example of that," he explains. "What made that so memorable was that I had the opportunity to evolve right before the eyes of the audience. I came out as a decrepit old guy and in the process of doing this seven-minute number; I became, in essence, a 14-year-old kid. That's one of the assets, one of the magic moments of the theatre that cannot happen in any other medium. All other mediums use technology to achieve that kind of magic. In the theatre, all we have is the most divine instrument ever created and that is the human form. THE FULL MONTY was a very special occasion." De Shields enjoyed his participation in that show so much that he repeated his performance in the London production.
André De Shields has been enjoying his venture into suburban theatre. As Northport is located on the Long Island Sound in the central part of Suffolk County, it does not provide the same sort of audiences that Broadway does. He explains: "I don't have any real understanding of it-it's just the way it's worked out: the party people come on Thursdays. They are ready to throw down. Then the people who might qualify as ‘theatre sophisticates' come on Friday and Saturday nights. Wednesdays are mostly single-ticket buyers and then the matinee performances are the more mature crowds. They want to get in early and get home early: that sort of thing. However, these are the people who have the absolute understanding of all the nuances in the piece. The Sunday night crowd is a very curious hybrid of all those people who are getting their last hurrahs before the work week begins again." Anyone who has worked in Long Island theatre might very well agree with De Shields' assessment of The Situation. "It's been a very satisfying experience," he hastens to add.
De Shields is the ninth of eleven children. His mother always wanted to be a dancer but wasn't allowed to. His father always wanted to sing but wasn't allowed to. "So when it came around to making their ninth baby, they transferred their deferred dreams into those X and Y chromosomes," he explains. "When I came into the world, my very first conscious thoughts were prescient regarding where I was headed!"
The actor's performing career started in Wilmington, Ohio in 1966. "I was a sophomore at Wilmington College and Professor James "Marty" Gilbert of the theatre department said to me that he'd always wanted to direct A RAISIN IN THE SUN but felt he never had the talent on campus to do it until he met me. At the tender age of 19 I had the opportunity to play Walter Lee Younger in the college production of Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed drama. The cast was complemented by talent from the town. I use this experience as the inception of my career because previous to that I had to keep my dreams of being a performer pretty close to my vest. You see, growing up in the inner city of Baltimore-a classic ‘ghetto' situation if there ever was one--dreams of being an entertainer were not revered. Although I was encouraged by my parents, they also cautioned me to find something that offered a little more security. It wasn't until I did RAISIN IN THE SUN that my family saw how serious I was about this quest. They also saw how ready I was in terms of my skills. That made the dream legitimate and from that point I knew there was no turning back."
Playing Walter Lee Younger also became a form of "exorcism" for De Shields. "It rid me of the bitterness that could have continued with me into my adult life had I not had the opportunity to leave those demons in a pool of sweat on the stage at Wilmington College. From that point on my dreams could become infinite rather than finite. It also allowed me to entertain ideas of one day playing Mr. Applegate," the actor explains. In some ways, De Shields feels that he's become the "poster boy for non-traditional casting" but he doesn't mind. In fact, he likes it. "Not only does it mean that I continue to grow, but it indicates that the industry is growing in some ways. I like to think that I'm part of that impetus. I also like to think that my attempt has at least opened a door for those who are following in my wake."
"This may sound a little esoteric," warns the performer, "but one of the reasons why I have such a love affair with legitimate theatre is that it is an indicator of cultural literacy. It's where stories are best told-not all of the time, but more often than not. It's where authenticity is not a rare element. It's the usual element of the effort. In terms of ancestry, the African American identity comes from many different cultures whose history has been continually based on oral traditions. That's what theatre is: oral tradition."
There's more than oral tradition taking place on the stage of the John W Engeman Theater these days. There's a pyrotechnic one as well. Several times during each performance, De Shields is involved in a blazing special effect that absolutely delights the crowd. Has it ever misfired? "Oh yes," he laughs. "On one or two occasions my Devil thumbs haven't fired at all, but we have ‘safeties' in the text when the fire doesn't happen. Unless our audiences witness the performance a second or third time they don't know that the magic hasn't happened. If the fire doesn't work, the ‘safeties' indicate that we shouldn't say the line which references the fire and move to the next line. That way the story isn't interrupted. It's happened only a few times. When these effects work, they are grand and everyone becomes a child again. The way this theatre is configured, the cast can't help but collide with the audiences after the show. Everyone wants to know how I make the fire go! Of course I tell them that I am the Devil and can do anything I want!"
De Shields has been having a glorious time working with co-stars Felecia Finley and Austin Miller. "Now, when I was offered this role," the dancer explains, "part of the deliciousness of doing it was when I learned Felecia would be playing Lola. Even if I hadn't been sold on the part before, I wanted to work with that woman. She tells a similar story. I hope that our mutual admiration shows in our performances." It most certainly does. [Note: Shortly after this interview, Felecia Finley departed DAMN YANKEES to star opposite Nick Spangler in a production of SAVED! in Kansas City.
In this production, Austin Miller, who takes a one-dimensional character, fleshes him out beautifully and sings with a very satisfying voice, plays the role of Joe Hardy. "I have witnessed his development from when we started rehearsing in early June. He is growing with every show. I guess we all are, but he has the most room for growth because of the nature of his character. He's also a gorgeous human being inside and out. His heart is in the right place. He and I share a dressing room, and I normally prefer my solitude, but in a situation like this where the cast is quite large, you're going to end up rooming with someone. Just the other day I offered this to him: I said, ‘I had trepidations about having a dressing roommate but you are such a well reared young man that this is turning out to be fun.' We get along fine." There's something wonderful and charming about the very notion that a seasoned veteran of the theatre would be sharing his dressing space with one of its most promising newcomers. The fact that they get along so well illustrates what true professionalism in the theatre is all about.
Up until recently, De Shields was double dipping into his own talents because while performing in Northport's DAMN YANKEES, he was also rehearsing and performing in the new Michel Friedman show called FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. Friedman is the composer of BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON as well as SAVED! De Shields says that Friedman's "star is on the rise and a name to be reckoned with." Although the actor is reluctant to talk about roles that he might be doing, he's willing to talk about FORTRESS SOLITUDE because "it's such an important piece of theatre. It is unusual theatre in that it treats--as a conceit of the piece-how an entire community is forever altered not only by gentrification but also by the inappropriate actions of its inhabitants."
"Now that's not your traditional theme for a musical," the star continues, "but Friedman has done something magical with the libretto. It turned out to be very poignant, cathartic and contemporary musical that is intergenerational, multi-cultural, and ethnically diverse. I think it's going to get a lot of attention. I'm so very glad that I had the opportunity to be in on it at the ground floor." When asked if there were prospects of this property moving on, the performer modestly remarks, "I would think so. I don't really know. I'm just talent. If it has a future, I want them to know it has my blessing."
Getting back to De Shields and his rendition of "Those Were The Good Old Days" in DAMN YANKEES: "I wanted that number to be memorable for a number of reasons," he explains. "Some of them are vanity, but it also has to do with what I've learned over the years. On one level, one can never know how many people are coming to the theatre for the first time. On another level one can never assume how many people are seeing that particular show for the first time. You only have that single opportunity to make your best impression. With DAMN YANKEES, although Mr. Applegate serves as the connective tissue in the show, he only has that one number. Fortunately it's the eleven o'clock number, so there can't be any pretense; there has to be total investment in making sure that whatever the demographic of the audience, everybody goes away with an indelible impression of the actor, the song, and the production. I have the opportunity to make going to the theatre a lifetime experience for many by doing what I do the best I can."
André De Shields has been making indelible impressions on audiences for many years now. He is one of the brightest lights on Broadway and Long Islanders have the opportunity to enjoy his rare and wonderful talent in DAMN YANKEES until August 29th.